Roman Empire Legacies Art & Architecture

Ron Petrarca, Christopher Muscato
  • Author
    Ron Petrarca

    I received my bachelor's degree in history from George Washington University and later earned a master's degree in the same subject from Uppsala University in Sweden. I have been a writer and editor for more than two decades.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Muscato

    Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore legacies of Roman Empire art and architecture via examples of mosaics, reliefs, and statues. See what concrete meant for enduring architecture. Updated: 04/05/2022

Ancient Roman Art and Architecture

The Roman Empire was one of the largest and most influential empires in human history. Together with ancient Greece, from which the Romans borrowed many aspects of their culture, the Roman Empire laid down the foundation for Western Civilization.

Almost every aspect of modern life in the West was in some way influenced by the Romans. For instance, the alphabet used to write the English language was a Roman invention, and ancient Roman art and architecture continue to serve as models for elegance, style and grandeur.


The Emperor Constantine

picture of colossal marble head of the emperor Constantine


Greco-Roman Art and Architecture

As mentioned above, the ancient Greeks exerted an extraordinary influence on the Romans, most especially in their religion, literature, mythology, art, and architecture. This is why Roman art and architecture is usually grouped into a larger era known as the Classical or Greco-Roman period. Much of what we associate with Roman architecture, including columns, geometric proportions, etc., was first employed by the ancient Greeks. However, there were some important artistic and architectural developments that were truly Roman inventions.

Roman Legacies

The Roman Empire was full of some pretty incredible people who changed the world of art and architecture. The innovative techniques and styles of the Romans set standards for beauty, style, and function that we still respect today.

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Ancient Roman Art

Roman art and architecture was created using many different mediums. The sections below will highlight a few of the most important.

Sculptures

The ancient Greeks developed the technology and artistic techniques needed to create life-like sculptures; however, the Romans used these techniques to create countless three dimensional likenesses of important figures in Roman history. The depiction of the emperor in marble busts and statues was an important feature of Roman political culture. Copies of likenesses of the many emperors who ruled Rome have been unearthed all over the Mediterranean region. The Romans shipped statues of their emperors to all corners of their empire so that ordinary citizens would know what their rulers looked like. In other words, the Romans used sculpture as a means of propaganda.

Most Roman sculptures were made from either marble or bronze. Marble is a type of metamorphic stone that was commonly used by the Greeks and Romans for both sculpture and architecture. Bronze is a metal alloy that has long been used for tools, sculptures, and various other purposes. The most splendid example of Roman bronze work is the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. This giant 13.9 ft tall image of one of Rome's most famous emperors survived the centuries after Rome's collapse. It can currently be seen in the Capitoline Museum in Rome.


The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius

picture of bronze statue marcus aurelius on horse


Paintings

There are relatively few Roman paintings that have survived. However, some of the most important can be seen in the ruins of Pompeii. Pompeii was a Roman city near Naples that was destroyed by a Volcanic eruption in 79 AD. The ash preserved the city and is a treasure trove of Roman art.

Many of the paintings that have been found in Pompeii include scenes from Greek and Roman mythology. Others include scenes from everyday life, including foods, sexual acts, and more. These paintings provide valuable insight into Roman culture. It also shows us that the painting techniques of the Romans were more advanced than those that existed during the Middle Ages. It was only during the Renaissance that life-like images in the medium of painting would once again be created.

The Golden Ratio was common in Greek and Roman art. It is a mathematical formula that was believed to produce beautiful symmetry in both nature and in works of art. The Golden Ratio is equal to approximately 1.6180.


Painting from Pompeii

picture of a painting of man and woman from Pompeii


Mosaics

A mosaic is an image made by placing together a number of small tiles. Mosaics were widely-used by the Romans to depict all types of images. Again, the city of Pompeii contains some of the most important Roman mosaics ever found. One of these is an image of a chained dog.


Mosaic from Pompeii

picture mosaic of dog in chains


Reliefs

Reliefs were another common form of Roman art. A relief is a sculpture where the background is carved more deeply than the figure jutting out from the background. This feature gives the image a more three-dimensional appearance. The Romans often used reliefs to depict important historical events. In fact, historians often study reliefs in order to understand important events from Roman history or to study Roman religion.

The Ara Pacis Augustae is the largest and best-preserved monument that depicts Roman reliefs. It was dedicated to the god Pax, who was the personification of peace. It was completed in the year 9 BC during the reign of the first emperor of Rome, Augustus. It was meant to symbolize the peace that he brought after many years of civil war within Rome.


Relief from the Ara Pacis

picture of ara pacis marble relief people in procession


Legacies of Roman Art

Art was a very important part of Roman lives. They decorated their homes, their businesses, and their temples in paintings and large murals made of tiny pieces of stone called mosaics. The Roman art that had the most long-lasting legacy, however, was sculpture. Roman statues were either carved from marble or cast in bronze. Marble was expensive and required real skill to carve, so it indicated social status. Bronze was even more expensive, so it was even more prestigious.

Roman sculpture was very heavily influenced by ancient Greece and was very realistic, meaning it tried to look as true to life as possible. Most temples and important government buildings were covered in reliefs, panels of marble with the backgrounds carved deeply so that the figures stand out in almost 3-dimensions. A series of these panels together told stories and depicted scenes from Roman history or mythology. Roman-style reliefs were very influential throughout Christian history, and reliefs with scenes from the Bible decorate many of the most important and influential cathedrals in the world.

Romans, like the Greeks, studied ideal ratios of the human body based on the golden ratio, a geometric formula for a ratio of 1:1.618. This ratio became the basis for the ideal standard of beauty, which is still used today. Several forms of Roman sculpture had lasting legacies in art. Christian sculptures throughout European history depicted Biblical scenes and people in Roman styles with realistic figures who were modeled in geometric proportions. Even today in the United States, most of our sculptures of presidents, such as the giant statue of Lincoln in Washington D.C., are based on Roman sculpture.

Also, the Romans often made statues in bronze or marble of important generals or leaders on horseback, called an equestrian statue. Equestrian statues were commissioned by generals, emperors, and dictators throughout history who wanted to compare themselves to the powerful Roman Empire.

Legacies of Roman Architecture

If you think Roman art had a lasting legacy, Roman architecture will blow you away. The Romans were some of the greatest architectural innovators and engineers in history. They developed styles and techniques that changed the world. The basis of this profound impact was the arch. Think about all of the arches we see in our world, from bridges to the golden arches over McDonald's. Before the Romans, nobody really knew how to use the arch as an architectural feature. They are difficult to construct properly because the arch naturally pushes outwards, so it had to be dug into earth or into a very wide wall for support.

The Romans figured out how to use the arch for more than irrigation ditches and used it to build enormous buildings. When used correctly, arches disperse the weight of the ceiling and allow for wider interior spaces. By building two arches that intersected at a perpendicular angle, the Romans invented something even more useful: the dome. A dome roof covers wide spaces while remaining structurally strong.

With the use of the arch and the dome, the Romans were able to create huge buildings that served as temples, meeting places, markets, or courts of law. For the first time, these buildings had lots of natural lighting with windows and high, domed ceilings, and could even be multiple stories tall. Around the first century AD, the Romans built a huge building called the 'Pantheon,' a temple to all of the gods, with a 142-foot tall domed roof. Almost 2,000 years later, this is still the largest pure concrete dome in the entire world.

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Video Transcript

Roman Legacies

The Roman Empire was full of some pretty incredible people who changed the world of art and architecture. The innovative techniques and styles of the Romans set standards for beauty, style, and function that we still respect today.

Legacies of Roman Art

Art was a very important part of Roman lives. They decorated their homes, their businesses, and their temples in paintings and large murals made of tiny pieces of stone called mosaics. The Roman art that had the most long-lasting legacy, however, was sculpture. Roman statues were either carved from marble or cast in bronze. Marble was expensive and required real skill to carve, so it indicated social status. Bronze was even more expensive, so it was even more prestigious.

Roman sculpture was very heavily influenced by ancient Greece and was very realistic, meaning it tried to look as true to life as possible. Most temples and important government buildings were covered in reliefs, panels of marble with the backgrounds carved deeply so that the figures stand out in almost 3-dimensions. A series of these panels together told stories and depicted scenes from Roman history or mythology. Roman-style reliefs were very influential throughout Christian history, and reliefs with scenes from the Bible decorate many of the most important and influential cathedrals in the world.

Romans, like the Greeks, studied ideal ratios of the human body based on the golden ratio, a geometric formula for a ratio of 1:1.618. This ratio became the basis for the ideal standard of beauty, which is still used today. Several forms of Roman sculpture had lasting legacies in art. Christian sculptures throughout European history depicted Biblical scenes and people in Roman styles with realistic figures who were modeled in geometric proportions. Even today in the United States, most of our sculptures of presidents, such as the giant statue of Lincoln in Washington D.C., are based on Roman sculpture.

Also, the Romans often made statues in bronze or marble of important generals or leaders on horseback, called an equestrian statue. Equestrian statues were commissioned by generals, emperors, and dictators throughout history who wanted to compare themselves to the powerful Roman Empire.

Legacies of Roman Architecture

If you think Roman art had a lasting legacy, Roman architecture will blow you away. The Romans were some of the greatest architectural innovators and engineers in history. They developed styles and techniques that changed the world. The basis of this profound impact was the arch. Think about all of the arches we see in our world, from bridges to the golden arches over McDonald's. Before the Romans, nobody really knew how to use the arch as an architectural feature. They are difficult to construct properly because the arch naturally pushes outwards, so it had to be dug into earth or into a very wide wall for support.

The Romans figured out how to use the arch for more than irrigation ditches and used it to build enormous buildings. When used correctly, arches disperse the weight of the ceiling and allow for wider interior spaces. By building two arches that intersected at a perpendicular angle, the Romans invented something even more useful: the dome. A dome roof covers wide spaces while remaining structurally strong.

With the use of the arch and the dome, the Romans were able to create huge buildings that served as temples, meeting places, markets, or courts of law. For the first time, these buildings had lots of natural lighting with windows and high, domed ceilings, and could even be multiple stories tall. Around the first century AD, the Romans built a huge building called the 'Pantheon,' a temple to all of the gods, with a 142-foot tall domed roof. Almost 2,000 years later, this is still the largest pure concrete dome in the entire world.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are some legacies of Roman Empire architecture?

One of the main legacies is the use of large domes to create spacious interiors. Another is the fact that many people still use Roman architectural styles to construct new buildings.

What are the characteristics of art of the Roman Empire?

One of the main characteristics of art during the Roman Empire was the use of the Golden Ratio. Another was the use of marble and concrete.

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